Household sustainability still needs government leadership

(This article was first posted on Friday 22 October, 2010.  A version of the article was published in The Courier Mail 22 October 2010 p 55 as “Insulation blunders sap energy”).

Last week’s report by the Commonwealth Auditor General into the Rudd Government’s botched home insulation scheme found incompetence in the public service but left unanswered the bigger question of how best governments might restore public confidence in home sustainability programs.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, the Energy Efficient Homes Package was supposed to quickly soak up low skills unemployed by flushing $2.8 billion of stimulus funding through a largely unregulated industry.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spruiked the positive role energy efficiency could play in fighting climate change and in reducing household energy budgets.

The fatal flaws in the plan, however, lay in the capacity of the insulation industry itself and a completely unrealistic timetable for the scheme’s implementation. 

How could a small sector of about 200 businesses be transformed and in just two short years achieve the energy efficiency upgrading of 2.7 million Australian homes without some serious risks being taken?

Of course it could not and the upshot was an influx of shysters into the industry, tragedy in the deaths of four young installers, thousands of fraudulent claims, and more than 200 house fires.

As many as a third of the 1.1 million installations have been left with “with some level of deficiency” rectification of which will cost another $740 million.

Understandably, thousands of Australian families have been turned off home energy innovation by the sorry episode, leaving a longer term legacy of higher household electricity costs and greenhouse gas emissions polluting our environment.

This at a time when the International Energy Agency is saying that if the major economies got serious about energy efficiency by 2030 they could cut global carbon emissions by nearly a third and save money doing it. 

Insulating buildings ranks among the IEA’s key recommendations for achieving energy efficiency.

Cooling the Queensland home already accounts for up to 27% of the average household electricity bill and yet almost 600,000 homes, many of them occupied by people least able to pay higher electricity prices, are not insulated against the tropical heat.

For Queenslanders shuddering at the recent double digit annual increases in power bills, the prospect of even more energy intensive lifestyles means even higher bills.

Energex and Ergon are spending more than $12 billion over the next five years just keeping the electricity infrastructure up to speed with the pace of increasing consumption, particularly spiralling peak consumption which is ramped up by home air conditioning.

A smarter alternative is to constrain household energy costs by making our houses perform more efficiently.

Ceiling insulation might not remove the need for air conditioning on the hottest days, but it makes it more efficient and affordable.

As we grapple with reducing our personal carbon footprints, home insulation will save Queensland households anywhere between 0.6 and 1.6 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year.

Had the Rudd Government’s solar hot water and insulation program been rolled out properly over five years, the upgrading of Australian houses may well have achieved cuts of up to 50 million tonnes of greenhouse gas by 2020.

Back in the early 1970s a young American physicist, Amory Lovins, showed how it would be smarter to build a “soft energy pathway” to the future grounded on the avoided costs achieved through energy efficiency, rather than on the costly alternative of ever escalating consumption.

Climate change and the inevitable pricing of carbon make Lovins’ message even more compelling.   

Rather than lose sight of what the insulation program was meant to achieve, the challenge now is to revive the national appetite for household energy innovation – but this time framed on a realistic and better regulated approach.

Author: Professor John Cole OAM

Professor Emeritus and founder of the Institute for Resilient Regions at the University of Southern Queensland and Honorary Professor, UQ Business School, The University of Queensland.

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